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Kitsch & Camp

Camping it out in the Never Never: Subverting Hegemonic Masculinity in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994)

Le machisme australien à l’épreuve du kitsch dans Priscilla, Folle du désert (Stephan Elliott, 1994)
Anne Le Guellec-Minel

Abstracts

The critical and popular success of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) helped to put the Australian film industry on the world map and made Stephan Elliott’s feature a cult film in its own right. The article explores how the aesthetics and politics of kitsch, which allow the film to balance subversion and conservatism, may have been the recipe for success. Priscilla belongs to the Australian subgenre of the “Glitter cycle” which charts the rise of ordinary nobodies to fame, affirming aesthetic tackiness against elitist good taste. Yet the film takes the consensual optimism of the glitter comedy further back to the societal and geographical margins of Australia. Leaving behind the urban gay scene, the film subversively relocates two icons of queer culture, the drag queen and the transsexual, in the sublime landscapes of the Outback that have helped forge the Australian myth of heroic masculinity. Although this queering of the myth does not do away with the hostile stereotypes traditionally projected on women and other marginalized groups, it does bring out the camp quality of the Australian sublime.

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Camping it out in the Never Never: subverting hegemonic masculinity in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994)

  • 1 It is interesting to note that when Elliott approached the Sydney Gay and Lesbian M (...)
  • 2 “It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized – or at leas (...)

1In June 2015, two decades after Stephan Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) came out, ABC released “Between a Frock and a Hard Place”, a TV documentary directed by Alex Barry and Paul Clarke that explores the social context in which the film was shot and the reasons it was so popular, both in Australia and abroad. Several reviews also marked the anniversary of the film’s release with analyses of the reasons for the film’s enduring success. The critical and popular acclaim met by this low-budget, loosely plotted road-movie about two homosexuals and a transsexual making a long bus-journey to a gig in drag in the Australian outback was indeed rather unexpected at the time. What is perhaps even more surprising today is that it should have earned a place in the midnight-movie category with its focus on homosexuality, its strong language and risqué jokes and, at the same time, have become the ultimate ‘feel-good’ film that programmers in fifty-six countries throughout the world chose after 9/11, in replacement of Die Hard type of features. The fact that Priscilla has been able to please both a mainstream and a ‘queer’ audience who perceive themselves as marginalised by a dominant gender system1 begs the question of the particularly ambivalent politics of kitsch and camp in the highly funds-dependent film industry. This article will first analyse the aesthetics and politics of kitsch in the 1990s “Glitter films cycle” to which Priscilla is generally considered as belonging, before questioning whether the subversion of hegemonic masculinity the film undertakes really opens out onto a world of greater inclusiveness and tolerance, or whether, as critics like Susan Sontag have suggested, camp merely depoliticizes the struggle against marginalisation2 by foregrounding artistic self-expression and the performance of quirky individualism. The last part of the article will focus on the way in which the film uses camp to both debunk and celebrate the tradition of the desert sublime around which urban Australia has built its imagined identity.

Popularizing Australian films: the 1990s Glitter cycle

2The term “Glitter cycle” has been used to refer to a subgenre of Australian films of the 1990s that celebrated popular culture in an effort to break out from the high-culture, small-audience cinematic identity that the Australian Film Commission (AFC) had contributed to creating in the 1970s and 1980s. The AFC was set up by Gough Whitlam’s Labour government in 1975 to support a floundering Australian film industry and it funded iconic, and highly recognizably Australian films like Peter Weir’s haunting Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975). But spurred on by the example of Australian rock bands that had taken international audiences by storm, Australian filmmakers like Gillian Armstrong, whose first feature My Brillant Career (1979) was a period piece adapted from a novel by the turn-of-century Australian writer Miles Franklin, now wanted to make films that would not just appeal to film buffs at home and abroad. That meant trading in the rather starkly experimental aesthetics and eccentric narratives set in the Australian outback for urban settings and the more conventionally upbeat storylines mainstream audiences could relate to internationally.

  • 3 “Screenwriter Reflects – Interview with Writer Stephen MacLean,” Star Struck Extras (...)

3Although it came out as early as 1982, Armstrong’s musical Star Struck about a pair of crazy teenagers’ struggle to achieve pop stardom is very representative of the later 1990s ‘glitter’ films. Star Struck is centred on a pair of teenagers, who are not particularly good-looking, clever or even gifted (at least not in the highbrow artistic sense), but who go the extreme lengths to get into the limelight. It is clearly a forerunner of such films as Baz Lurhman’s Strictly Ballroom (1992), in which a young dancer refuses to buckle down to the ballroom conventions tyrannically upheld by the scheming head of the Dance Federation in order to win a competition, or P. J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding (1994), which portrays the determined struggle of a completely ineligible young woman to become the star of a white wedding ceremony, or Stephan Elliott’s Priscilla (also released in 1994), which shows the efforts deployed by two drag-queens and a transsexual woman to find a truly appreciative audience. Like the later ‘Glitter cycle’ features, Armstrong’s film is a brash, feel-good comedy in which ordinary people are turned into glamorous celebrities because of their extraordinary resourcefulness, energy and drive, but more importantly thanks to all the production artifices associated with stage performance: heavily sequined costumes, showy make-up, popular tunes, boldly coloured sets and bright lights. Although the tacky aesthetics and irreverent behaviour of the protagonists are meant to have an exhilarating impact on mainstream cinema audiences, who will draw pleasure from seeing conventionally defined good taste being outraged in a piece of popular entertainment, the fact that the characters’ goals (personal success, social recognition) are entirely conventional is what allows for the films’ satisfying, if completely implausible, comedic resolutions. Interestingly, according to Stephen Maclean, the scriptwriter of Star Struck, American audiences were initially more receptive to the film because, unlike Australians, they didn’t think that films were supposed to imitate reality, be it in a parodic way. Rejecting the idea that Star Struck was a send-up, MacLean insisted it was simply the most “movie-movie of movies”.3

  • 4 Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), trans. J (...)

4This claim to brash, kitschy, purely pleasurable artifice, by contrast with the serious realism and high-minded universalism of the art-house trend of the 1980s, can be understood as the acknowledgement that ‘glitter’ film-makers were consciously selling out to the entertainment industry so fiercely denounced by T. W. Adorno and M. Horkheimer. On the grounds that far from “open[ing] for the masses the [cultural] spheres from which they were formerly excluded,” they argued that kitsch directly contributed “to the decay of education and the progress of barbaric meaninglessness”.4 The parallel with the spurious democratization of culture condemned by Adorno appears all the more relevant here as, according to Liz Ferrier, the glitter films focus on ‘artist’ characters who seek redemption in the form of social recognition through self-expression. This, she writes, arguably amounts to a commodification of the lonely, doomed, idealistic quests of the ‘New Wave’ protagonists:

  • 5 Liz Ferrier, “Vulnerable Bodies: Creative Disabilities in Contemporary Australian Film,” in(...)

The non-generic, artistic, anti-commercial films of the 1980s […], which differentiated themselves from the commercial industry and American cinema through their aestheticism (among other things), are thus effectively replaced in the 1990s, by more commercially viable films which celebrate in their narratives those values upheld by the ‘Industry 1’ (Culture) films of the 1980s.5

5The recycling of values that defined the Australian cinematic identity in the 1980s cannot, however, be considered to be a form of acknowledgement of an artistic legacy. In fact, MacLean’s remark about the compared reception of Star Struck in Australia and the United States suggests that Australian audiences had to adjust to the way in which, as Ferrier explains, Americanized consumer culture translated the valorisation of competition and economic performance in the 1990s:

  • 6 Ibidem, 59.

It may be that the success of some of these films owes a lot to the repetition of popular myths about creative expression in the 1990s, repetitions which present creative, and compulsive, self-expression as a legitimate expression of the competitive performance ethos of the late twentieth century – sitting somewhere between Madonna’s mantra ‘Express yourself’ and Nike’s performance slogan ‘Just do it’.6

  • 7 Graeme Turner, National Fictions: Literature, Film and the Construction of Australian Narra (...)
  • 8 Emily Rustin, “Romance and Sensation in the ‘Glitter Cycle’”, in Ian Craven (ed.), op. cit.(...)
  • 9 Liz Ferrier, op. cit., 60.

6Yet it would also be unfair to consider that the glitter films of the 1990s were only part of a dumbing-down and selling-out process. Ferrier warns against understanding the term ‘commercial’ in a purely pejorative sense or thinking that these films were commercially viable simply because they mimicked Hollywood productions. Both she and Emily Rustin argue that the 1990s filmmakers’ drive to reach larger audiences was part of the struggle to break out of a geographically induced cultural isolation, which the nationalist ethos of the Australian film industry had actually reinforced rather than alleviated. Picking up on Graeme Turner’s 1986 assessment of Australian fiction in film and literature that “the dominant myth of the Australian context sees the imperatives of the self surrender to the exigencies which are imposed by the environment […] regardless of whether that environment is a ‘natural’ one or a ‘naturalised’ one” 7, Rustin asserts that the 1990s glitter-cycle films work to undermine that mythology’s dominance and to “effectively re-wr[i]te the place of the individual within the Australian ‘context’”.8 “Many of these films”, agrees Ferrier, “find ways for ‘passive’ Australian characters (usually constructed as acted upon rather than acting) to participate in triumphant, and marketable, narratives about individual success.” 9

Fighting marginalization

  • 10 Graeme Turner, op. cit., 50.

7It is easy to see how well a road-movie-cum-musical feature like Priscilla fits in a category thus defined by a resistance to “natural” environments. Not only does the film show that urban drag queens can actually survive, and even ‘find their place’ in the desert – as in the scene in which King’s Canyon at sunset becomes a magnificent operatic stage for the three drag performers –, but that it is possible to have a full and rewarding life outside the male/female binary. At the outset, the main characters, Anthony or ‘Tick’/Mitzi, Adam/Felicia and Ralf/Bernadette, appear as an odd bunch of misfits who seem to be trapped in lives of drudgery and lies. The film opens with a close-up of a graceful ‘Mitzi’ in glamorous drag, lip-synching Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me”. But as she poignantly performs the closing lines, she is heckled by a drunken spectator who yells “[s]how us your pink bits”, and, shortly after, is knocked down by a beer-can aimed at her head. The coarse taunt and the act of violence, which ignore both Mitzi’s idealising performance of femininity and the issue of gender uncertainty her choice of song expresses, immediately posits Tick as a figure of inadequateness and ridicule. Artistic inadequacy is all the more painful for him as, having abandoned his wife soon after their son was born, he also sees himself as a failed husband and father. As for young Adam, Tick’s drag-act partner, he is only a mummy’s boy who has to pretend that he needs a trip into the desert to be cured of his homosexuality to get his mother to pay for a vehicle that will get them to their Alice Spring gig. Bernadette, the third member of the unlikely trio, is an ageing, lonely transsexual. Her family cast her off after she had her sex change and she is aware that her sexual partners are drawn to her mainly because, within their marginalized community, she represents a “bent status symbol [that is] always good for a supper invite”. Considering the trio’s social, financial, artistic, emotional bankruptcy, their trip to Alice Springs, in answer to Tick’s wife’s call for help, comes across as an almost suicidal attempt to break out from their marginalized positions. Indeed, the Australian outback quickly proves to be the most uncongenial of places to alternative sexual identity politics: their bus is vandalized and Adam’s flirtation with a sex-starved miner ends in disaster. At the nadir point of their quest, when Adam is beaten up and barely escapes being raped in Coober Pedy, the absurdity of their situation is so harshly brought home to the trio that Bernadette seems almost reconciled with the “construction of the condition of enclosure, restriction and entrapment”10 Turner identified as the dominant myth of Australian identity: “We all sit around slagging off that vile stink hole of a city but in some strange way it takes care of us. I don’t know if that ugly wall of suburbia has been put there to stop them [the homophobes] getting in or us getting out.”

8Yet, at the end of the film, Bernadette finds herself a gentleman companion who truly appreciates her sophisticated femininity. Adam learns from Benji, Tick’s young son, that a child can be aware of the complexities of adult sexuality without losing his innocence, and suddenly grows out of his outrageous spoilt-brat persona to take on a responsible big-brother role. As for Tick, he comes to believe in his own capacity to be a role model for his son while also accepting his homosexuality: in the final scene, he ends a drag performance by telling his ecstatic Sydney audience that “it is good to be home”, before good-humouredly confiding that “[his] tits are falling down”. Then, while still on stage and with his son happily helping to shine a spotlight on him from the wings, he peels off his wig with a big, self-confident grin to dispel the drag illusion and ironically reclaim his masculine identity.

9The fact that when they return to their Sydney venue the drag queens find it possible to feel “at home” seems to suggest that the hegemonic masculinities that once defined Australian identity have been pushed back to the margins of the most rural, backward areas. The popular success of the film itself confirmed that Priscilla was riding a wave of societal changes in Australia. As Nathan Smith put it:

  • 11 Nathan Smith, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: Why It Still Survi (...)

The 1990s offered a time of (brief) relief for the queer community, as the devastating costs of the HIV/AIDS epidemic momentarily subsided in the wake of developments in anti-retroviral medication and the growing acceptance of gay men and trans folks. It was a time for recollection and a return to the camp and dated indulgences of the liberated and promising 1970s that the AIDS epidemic so brutally stole from the LGBT community during a decade plagued by stigma and shame.11

  • 12 Priscilla actually debunks stereotypical representations of the homosexual as an AIDS victi (...)
  • 13 The lyrics lip-synched by Felicia roughly translate as “Folly! All is folly! This is mad (...)
  • 14 Philip Brophy, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Australian Screen (...)
  • 15 Ibidem, 54.
  • 16 Abrahams Moles, Le Kitsch : l’art du bonheur, Paris: Denoël-Gonthier, 1971.
  • 17 Christophe Genin, Kitsch dans l’âme, Paris: Vrin, 2010, 74-75.

10In fact, the three protagonists are ostracised in relation to AIDS only in the outback.12 In the industrial town of Broken Hill, they wake up to find “AIDS FUCKERS GO HOME” scrawled over the whole length of their bus. Their reactions of resigned hurt suggest they have had to face this kind of ostracism before. Yet the thrown beer can is the only violence we see in the Sydney scenes, and even in the outback there are few occurrences of spontaneous hostility. It can be argued that being comedians and city folk contributes as much to making the trio seem out of place in the desert as their ambivalent sexual identity does. The episode of the vandalized bus, therefore, works in the film more as an opportunity for camp theatricals than as a way to document the marginalization of the gay community: before Adam paints over the homophobic inscription, there is a long sequence showing the defaced bus moving through the red desert with Felicia, dressed in a sparkling silver leotard and a massive headdress, and enthroned in a giant silver slipper on the roof. She is shown lip-synching Maria Callas’ famous rendering of “Sempre Libera”, Violetta’s aria from Verdi’s best-loved opera La Traviata. The low angle close-up of Felicia’s face makes her nostrils appear noticeably larger, and this, combined with the heavily made-up eyebrows and painful expression, constitutes an irresistible parody of La Callas whose highly stagey persona and famously unhappy life have established as an icon of camp culture. The light reflected off Felicia’s sparkling costume is filmed with a glitter effect so that the large sparkles crisscrossing her breast give visual expression to Violetta’s conflicting emotions, her “mad” hopes to find true love with Alfredo and her resigned acceptance of her condition as a social outcast.13 Felicia’s parodic and highly aestheticized playing out of the trio’s hurt seems to gloss over the homophobic attack in a way that may give weight to what reviewers like Philip Brophy have argued: that the film’s portrayal of the three protagonists’ struggle against intolerance was not really culturally ground-breaking, since in the 1990s, mainstream audiences had become visually familiar with the drag queen, whose act, being perceived as artificial performance made her the least unsettling figure of queer culture.14 The film could indulge in this flamboyant theatricality because by the time it came out, such camp aesthetics had become a familiar sight on Mardi Gras floats. In Philip Brophy’s words, “the gay embrace of Priscilla [was] a cultural conundrum qualified by how gay iconography ha[d] been assimilated into mainstream currents of Australian imagery, and how gay content ha[d] strategically lubed broader media channels for PC reconciliation.”15 If this was indeed the case, then the kind of ostentatious extravagance that is deployed in the film is perhaps not so much camp as kitsch, defined by Abraham Moles as the kind of art that is acceptable, “democratic” because commonly accessible, by contrast with high brow Art, which demands of the audience that they overreach themselves.16 Picking up on Moles’ work, Christophe Genin suggests that ‘fun-seeking’ kitsch may be thought of as a means to recreate social cohesion in a postmodern society that is characterized by the loss of shared values.17 This interpretation would go some way to explaining the mainstream perception of the film as a ‘feel good’ feature.

  • 18 Ibidem, 73.

11Yet, while there is nothing wrong with innocent fun, pandering to mainstream tastes and values in order to achieve a sense of shared communality can also serve totalitarian agendas, as Adorno and Kundera have shown. This is what Brophy accuses the film of: although it was sold to the audiences as outrageously irreverent, it actually did little to subvert the dominant mind-set, and particularly the masculinist prejudices that prevailed in Australia. In fact, he scathingly describes both Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding as “nihilistic, vicious, misogynist, delusional – all the key ingredients required […] for a feel-good Aussie movie.”18 Although his assessment, both of the films in question and of mainstream Australian cinematic expectations, is clearly over-harsh, it is possible to see how, while foregrounding the no-longer-so-subversive figures of the drag queens, the film could go on portraying women, in particular, in way that played up to the misogyny that was part of the legacy of Australia’s settler culture.

Pandering to the myth of the “hen-pecked Aussie”

12Except for Marion, Tick’s wife, the few women of the film are all presented both as opponents of the main protagonists and of men in general. In fact, although Tick and his friends have obviously never been to the desert (when they leave the last built-up areas they are actually shocked by the sight of the wide expanses before them), the few women they come across in the outback are made to look more alien than the drag queens themselves. This is the case of the woman who is attempting a solitary ‘Epic Jog’ across the continent with only her small beeping trailer for company. Instead of dwelling on this woman’s extraordinary feat, the film dismisses her effort as a ludicrous promotional stunt. A form of rivalry between the nameless woman and the trio is established because they set out at exactly the same moment and they are going in the same direction, but Tick and his friends have a crowd cheering them off and she only has a tiny group of drab company officials. At a key moment when ‘Priscilla’ leaves the sealed road and takes to the dirt road after the vandalized bus episode, the woman inexplicably comes up behind them and runs straight past the turn, without so much as a glance sideways. As the camera rises to a crane shot, both the bus and the woman are caught in the same frame but while the former moves off left into the sunset, romantically wreathed in dust, the woman keeps to the main road on the right with a doggedness that is made to look boringly conservative. Little else is seen of her, except one night, when she runs past the trio’s campfire and is deemed rude because she does not return Adam’s cheery greeting. Her imperviousness to her surroundings contrasts with the journey of self-discovery undertaken by the trio and establishes her as an absurd, comical character.

13The sense of alienation that characterizes ‘Cynthia’ is on a quite different level and several critics have commented on what they saw as the racist overtones of her portrayal. She is a South-East Asian woman who tricked Bob, the ageing hippie turned car-repair man, into marrying her and bringing her back to Australia with him. She only speaks gibberish and behaves like a hysterical shrew. She finally leaves Bob when he begs the drag queens to perform but cuts short her own stripper act. Deliberate bad taste is often used in the film to jolt PC audiences into horrified laughter (for instance, when Bernadette tersely says that the person who painted all the garish murals in the famous “Mario’s Palace” in Broken Hill must have been someone “without arms or right foot”), but Cynthia is so predatory and obscenely foreign that it is impossible not to wonder whether, in order to make the drag queens more acceptable by contrast, the film is actually pandering to mainstream racism as well as sexism.

  • 19 Diana Sandars, “Don’t Let Them Drag You Down: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Des (...)

14The third female character, grimy, workman-like ‘Shirl’, who appears at the bar in the mining town of Broken Hill, is the one who is most openly hostile to the main protagonists. She insultingly asks the trio if they have come in from “Uranus” and tries to prevent them from being served. According to Diana Sandars, who is critical of Brophy for describing the film as misogynous, Shirl is “the gatekeeper, the empowered voice for her homophobic community […] who marks her presence and her respected status in her community by standing amongst the men at the bar.”19 As a matter of fact, she doesn’t really “stand amongst the men”; she is invisible until the drag queens and Bernadette come in. We first see her roughly elbowing her way forward when Bernadette tries to order cocktails. A medium, power-enhancing low angle shot reveals her as the only aggressive presence in the bar. Before she pushes her way forward, the men behave passively, merely falling silent and backing away to let Bernadette and the drag queens through. When Shirley begins taunting the trio, they crowd in behind her but look on with disbelief rather than hostility. They seem cowed by her bullying ways and allow her to speak in their name until she is made an object of ridicule. Then they turn away from her, a high angle shot enhancing Shirl’s humiliation and isolation at the centre of the pub crowd. Their lack of real support for Shirl and her homophobic aggressiveness is made obvious when they break into loud guffaws when Bernadette tells her to “light [her] tampon and blow [her] box apart because that’s the only bang [she’s] ever going to get”. The taunt, spoken in Bernadette’s deepest, harshest, most masculine voice, contemptuously draws attention to Shirl’s femaleness (a minority feature in the pub) and, at the same time, demeans her for being sexually unattractive. While the film’s choice to have a masculine-looking woman defending the miners’ territory against the intrusion of female impersonators neatly queers the traditional male intolerance of women in rural pubs, the liberating effect of Shirl’s humiliation on the miners seems to suggest that she was the only barrier standing between them and the drag queens. The portrayal of the miners as a meek and peaceable crowd is rather different from the one that films like Wake Up In Fright (Ted Kotscheff, 1971) have accustomed the viewer to. But Shirl’s presence and the role she is made to play is still more unexpected. Is she being punished for having usurped male prerogatives? Is the film suggesting that homophobia is fed by the resentment and hostility that castrating middle-aged women manifest towards those men they see as threatening their power with their sexiness? It would not make much sense for the film to show Shirl being humiliated just for having crossed the gender divide, so the idea that the scene is meant to convey is more probably that she is punished for having conformed to the stereotypical form of masculinism that is so dominant in the outback that it allows for no diversity.

15A former sequence, in which the drag queens are shown literally first setting foot in Broken Hill and later walking down the main street in full drag to the sound of Alicia’s Bridges “I love the nightlife”, highlights the boring uniformity of the town. The sequence is introduced by two contrasting long shots of the town’s seemingly massive clock tower and the low line of rooftops, followed by a medium shot of an anonymous elderly man despondently sitting on his porch. The camera then cuts back to the clock tower looming over a crossing. Deep focus photography allows us to see people crossing the street in the middle distance, but it is difficult to tell the few women from the men because everyone seems to be wearing pants, cowboy hats and boots. The camera then sinks to the ground in a low angle shot that zooms in on Mitzi’s foot slowly alighting from the bus. Next, it slowly travels from the painted-toenails and high platform shoe up Mitzi’s leather-strapped calves to her drag frock (it is the iconic one covered in orange flip-flops) to her made-up face and pink wig. Although Mitzy’s expression and lines reflect her misgivings, she effectively blocks out the clock tower from the frame as if merely by setting foot in Broken Hill, rather like Neil Amstrong on the moon, she had already overcome the crushing uniformity and inertia the town laboured under with her outrageous impersonation of femininity. This seems to be confirmed later, when the trio walk down the main street, by the baffled yet good-natured reactions of the passers-by and three successive close-ups of the staring faces of a little girl, a middle-aged rustic and a fenced-in dog.

  • 20 It is interesting to compare this representation of passive, defeated Australian masculinit (...)
  • 21 Scott is only able to hear what his father is telling him when he meets a “real” father (...)
  • 22 Philip Butters, “Becoming a Man in Australian Film,” in Ian Craven (ed.), op. cit., (...)
  • 23 Diana Sandars, “Don’t Let Them Drag You Down,” op. cit.

16Throughout the Broken Hill episode, and more generally, throughout the film, the courageously anti-conformist stance of the trio is contrasted by the passivity and lack of self-confidence of all the other men. Deep down, Tick, who can’t believe in himself because he does not know whether he is straight or gay, (perhaps because, in Australia, being straight means being bossed around by a masculine wife, and being gay is seen as being effeminate) is very much like Bob, for instance, but he does not share his typically Australian fatalism. Bob tells Bernadette he has become resigned to a mediocre life repairing old bangers in a one-horse town: “I spent thirty years wandering around the world only to find I’m better off where I started. Not much, but it’s my turf.” Bob, who admires Bernadette for having opted for “the chop” is himself a weak, emasculated figure who disappoints her on their romantic night by the camp fire and has to make it up by giving her a bunch of flowers. Like the men in the pub, and even like the Coober Pedy miner who naively falls for Felicia’s impersonation of femininity, then becomes violent when he realizes he has been deceived but gets kneed by Bernadette, a transgender woman, Bob stands for the typically unassertive and inarticulate Australian male who, when he is married, allows himself to be pushed around by his overbearing wife. 20 Rather as in Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992), where Scott finally listens to the advice of his dithering, henpecked father, who tells him to obey his own instincts and to perform his own dance steps instead of those the Dance Federation and his mother insist he stick to,21 Priscilla shows, rather conventionally, how the main characters’ quirky journey towards empowerment makes it necessary that strong, gender-bending women should be put in their places. In so doing, the film makes, as Philip Butters writes about Strictly Ballroom, “a range of concessions to an only slightly different form of hegemonic masculinity.”22 Diana Sandars argues, however, that Priscilla is merely balancing “drag’s liberation from hegemonic sex and gender roles with the self-loathing, homophobic and misogynist elements that form the dark side of drag culture”.23 Whatever the case may be, the film does, to a certain extent, appear reassuringly conventional for the mainstream viewer since it suggests that ‘mateship’, that most essential of Australian democratic values, is possible even between queer and straight men as long as it takes place far from the oppressive domesticity of the home, in a pub or by a camp fire, locations women can be marginalized or excluded from.

A camp rewriting of the Desert Sublime

17Although central to the Australian sociality, mateship tends, however, to remain a form of compensation, of temporary solace to existential Angst. The solitary exploration of the desert, rather than the communal experience of the pub, seems to be what best defines the Australian imagined identity. In her study of the representation of the desert in Australian fiction and art, Roslynn D. Haynes presents this as an imperial legacy:

  • 24 Roslynn D. Haynes, Seeking the Centre: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film, C (...)

In the later half of the nineteenth century, when Britain’s confidence in its empire was shaken by uprisings in India and Africa, it became fashionable to see the colonies as contributing the flower of their manhood to reinvigorate a worn-out imperial centre. In the ripping yarns of the 1890s the Australian desert offered an alternative to Rider Haggard’s Africa as a venue for masculine adventures that simultaneously glorified the empire and allowed men to indulge their desire to escape the restrictions and responsibilities of a society they perceived as petticoat-governed. 24

  • 25 Incidentally, it is interesting to remember that although it has been said that Terence Sta (...)
  • 26 When Tick dresses up in bush shirt and pants and an Akubra hat to impress his son with his (...)

18The taciturn, self-reliant bushman of the nationalist imagination was later replaced, in Sydney Nolan’s and Albert Tucker’s paintings, Patrick White’s novel Voss or Francis Webb’s explorer poems, by the mystic visionary. This figure was inspired by the sublimely heroic and grotesquely overblown figures of the imperial explorers of the mid-19th century, but also by the Judeo-Christian imagery of self-renunciation in the desert.25 The desert thus became a symbolic landscape and the exploration a personal spiritual quest on which the Australian man embarked to resolve his existential uncertainties. The journey into the desert led the explorer to divest himself of the trappings of social identity and stoically face alienation and even extinction, his self-sacrifice allowing him to lay spiritual claim to the land. This is the kind of imagination that the surreal story of two gay men and a transgender woman dressing up in grotesquely unsuitable clothes and shoes to go into the desert both plays along with, and most efficiently subverts by putting into relief its campy excesses.26

19Elliott has said that visual contrast was one of main effects he was after to make his film stand out:

  • 27 Stephan Elliott in the DVD extras.

Thousands of people had been out in the desert doing Mad Max films wearing brown or black, but my simple concept in all of this is to do the opposite colour. That’s why the colours stand out so much. Blood red desert/lime green dress. You couldn’t see anything else.27

  • 28 Philip Brophy, op. cit., 39.
  • 29 Christopher Isherwood, The World in the Evening (1956) quoted in David Bergman (ed. (...)

20The simple device of juxtaposing complementary primary colours is efficient enough, but Elliott’s staging of Isadora Duncan dance moves on top of a barren hillock would not make much sense if the film had not also been rewriting the tradition of the desert sublime from within. Brophy cites the “overloading of [national identity’s] archetypes and icons with implosive characteristics”28 as Priscilla’s greatest achievement, and it is because the film does indeed pick up seriously, as well as ironically, on the desert mystique that it can be described as achieving the ‘implosive’ humour characteristic of camp. As Christopher Isherwood put it, “true High Camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.”29

  • 30 Of course, he could also be referring to the 1979 ABBA song that bears the same nam (...)

21The film offers many examples of camp humour, which can either be read as isolated moments or jokes pointing to a theme that runs through the whole film. As was mentioned before, the reasons why Tick and Bernadette want to make a six-week journey into the desert are, respectively, to come in aid of a wife, and to recover from the death of a partner. But when Adam is asked why he wanted to come on the trip, he says that he always wanted to climb a mountain in the desert dressed in drag. This gives Bernadette the opportunity to deliver one of her characteristically rude epigrams: “That’s just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock.” The alliterative second half of the sentence, carefully enunciated with an English accent, manages to sound both snobbish and vulgar, while the terse commentary that precedes it establishes an ironic link between Adam’s ludicrous ambition and the historic exploring, or rock-climbing feats which have fed national pride in Australia (and New Zealand). However, just before the trio start climbing up to the top of King’s Canyon at the end of the film, Adam seems to quote Martin Luther King when he solemnly says: “I have a dream”.30 So perhaps Bernadette’s quip also encompasses the symbolism of Adam’s dream, that is to say the sublimation of the drag queen into a Christ-like, or at any rate, an angelic figure ascending a mountain to preach tolerance and loving kindness. After all, there is a scene in the film where Adam flies and then lets go of an angel-like kite (fashioned out of a bare-breasted, scarlet-clad blow-up doll) that a Shinto monk in Japan retrieves and furtively fondles while the end credits roll. Bernadette’s ironic “that’s just what this country needs” could therefore be understood both as a nod to the typically Aussie mind-set, which is practical and sceptical, and to the yearning for a spiritual answer to the sense of exile and alienation which the Australian cultural tradition is also built upon.

  • 31 See, for instance, White’s Voss, Malouf’s Remembering Babylon and Stow’s Tourmaline(...)
  • 32 Patrick White in a letter to his editor Ben Huebsch in 1956. David Marr, Patrick Wh (...)
  • 33 Patrick White, Voss (1957), London: Penguin Books, 1980, 446.

22Another emblematic moment in the film is the scene, already mentioned, in which Felicia in glittering leotard and free-flowing drapes mouths La Traviatta’s “sempre libera” aria. The audience may have been used to seeing drag queens on screen or on the Sydney streets, but what makes the sequence seem radically novel is the relocation of a Sydney float in the desert. Yet, this too can be seen as a rewriting of the tradition of the Australian sublime. Far from trivialising Verdi’s opera, the beautiful travelling shots of the bus moving through the red desert landscapes with the swirling silvers streamers of Felicia’s costume providing a visual accompaniment to the diva’s vocal flourishes, lend a truly operatic poignancy to the desert scene. This use of the opera in the film may remind the viewer of the desert scenes in the novels by Patrick White, David Malouf or Randolph Stow.31 In the 1950s, the Australian novel began to break away from the dusty, uncompromisingly down-to-earth realism of the nationalist school. In a letter to his editor, Patrick White described Voss, the new novel he was writing, as a story about the “grand passion” between a megalomaniac German explorer, headed for the great unknown of the desert, and the niece of one of the patrons of his expedition, adding “I want to include the crimson plush and organ peals.”32 White’s vivid rewriting of nineteenth century explorers’ journals and of the nationalist tradition inspired many younger artists to represent the desert in completely novel ways. White’s book was itself made into an opera commissioned by Opera Australia, the principal opera company in Australia, and the production only put into higher relief the high camp aesthetics that were already contained in the novel. The opera premiered in 1986 at the Adelaide Festival and had a successful national run so that when Elliott associated the desert and the opera, he was tapping into a well-established tradition of ‘desert’ high camp. But of course, he rewrote the tradition initiated by White (himself a closeted gay man) into a narrative that was more adapted to a post-’Stonewall Riots’ society. White’s eponymous character dies in the desert, ritually beheaded by his Aboriginal guide. In Priscilla, there is a long sublime sequence in which a series of aerial shots show the trio at sunset, walking along the ridges of King’s Canyon in flamboyant drag to the sound of choral music; but when they arrive at the end of a ridge and seem to have come face to face with infinity and wonder what to do next, Tick simply turns to his friends and says in his most nasal and girlish voice: “I think I want to go home”. The grand gesture still makes a valid point, even if it is mainly on the aesthetic level and it is promptly debunked, because “death by torture in the country of the mind”33 is no longer required and the sublime is never far removed from the grotesque. A similar celebration of semiotic excess can be found in the scene where Allan, a friendly Aborigine who has made an impromptu appearance in one of the trio’s acts at a gathering in the desert, asks Tick, who is got up in flowing white robes like a parodic T. E. Lawrence, whether there really is money to be made by dressing up in women’s clothes, thus queering still further David Lean’s already camp rendering of Lawrence’s imperial Middle-Eastern epic.

Conclusion

  • 34 Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Harmondsworth: Peng (...)
  • 35 Kelly Farrell, “(Foot)Ball Gowns: Masculinities, Sexualities and the Politics of Performanc (...)
  • 36 Ibid., 158, 161.
  • 37 Martin Crotty, Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity 1870-1920, Melbourne: M (...)

23As the discussion of a few scenes of Priscilla has attempted to show, the film puts into relief the innate ambivalence of camp, which by resorting to mimicry, irony and parody, enacts what Marjorie Garber describes as “category crisis”, “a failure of definitional distinction”. Camp, she writes, has the powerful potential “to disrupt, expose, and challenge, putting in question the very notion of a stable identity”.34 However, even if in the film the concept of hegemonic masculinity is indeed challenged, it is not done away with but merely stretched to accommodate gay men. Back in Sydney, Tick is reinstated as a self-confident father, thanks to, but also far from, his potentially domineering wife who is symbolically relegated to a marginal position in Alice Springs. In the film, men are repeatedly positioned as victims whatever their sexual preferences (sometimes co-opting other victimized groups, as in the case of the group of Aborigines for whom they perform Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”). This victimization of masculine characters seems only to be caused by a few women trying to usurp masculine prerogatives of leadership, however. The legitimacy of hegemonic masculinity does not appear to be questioned. Since the balance of power is restored at the end, and even if the drag queens – all played by uncompromisingly straight actors, as Kelly Farrell points out in an article in which she analyses the significance of rugby league star Ian Roberts’ coming out the same year Priscilla was released35 – are reinstated as carnivalesque variants of the Australian male, the film offers a view of society that is only very superficially transformed. Farrell is concerned with “the ease with which heterosexuality can co-opt queer (with Priscilla as an example) and contain it within the broader concerns of the maintenance of national identity”, and accuses Priscilla of “turn[ing] queer into mainstream cultural capital”. 36 As Martin Crotty writes in the concluding chapter of Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity 1870-1920, although in Australia masculinity has been reformed in the twentieth century, and the “most violent, anti-intellectual, and virulently racist and sexist elements of what used to be the ‘centre’ are now firmly confined to the margins”, the Australian society still has some way to go in “questioning and interrogating masculinity, in ensuring that the qualities we deem desirable are not exploited or utilised for, or motivated by, racist, sexist, or homophobic ends and underpinnings.” 37It may be, therefore, that Priscilla profited more, both nationally and internationally, from the societal breakthrough of gay agency within the Australian society than it actually acted upon its audiences by increasing the visibility of homosexual minorities and subverting mainstream representations of Aussie masculinity. In fact, the film’s relative conservatism concerning the power struggle between genders could well be one of the reasons for its enduring success, the other being its ingenious high camp recycling of the desert sublime.

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Bibliography

ADORNO Theodor W. & Max HORKHEIMER, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming. London, New York: Verso Classics, [1944] 1997.

BERGMAN David (ed.), Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

BROPHY Philip, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Australian Screen Classics, Strawberry Hills: Currency Press, 2008.

BUTTERS Philip, “Becoming a Man in Australian Film”, in Ian Craven (ed.), Australian Cinema in the 1990s, New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 2001.

CROTTY Martin, Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity 1870-1920, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001.

FARRELL Kelly, “(Foot)Ball Gowns: Masculinities, Sexualities and the Politics of Performance,” Journal of Australian Studies, n° 63, 1999.

FERRIER Liz, “Vulnerable Bodies: Creative Disabilities in Contemporary Australian Film”, in Ian Craven (ed.), Australian Cinema in the 1990s, London, Portland, Or.: Frank Cass Publishers, 2001.

GARBER Marjorie, Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

GENIN Christophe, Kitsch dans l’âme, Paris: Vrin, 2010.

HAYNES Roslynn D., Seeking the Centre: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film, Cambridge, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

MALOUF David, Remembering Babylon, London: Vintage, 1993.

MARR David, Patrick White: A Life, London: Jonathan Cape, 1991.

MOLES Abrahams, Le Kitsch : l’art du bonheur, Paris: Denoël-Gonthier, 1971.

RUSTIN Emily, “Romance and Sensation in the ‘Glitter Cycle’”, in Ian Craven (ed.) Australian Cinema in the 1990s, New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 2001.

SANDARS Diana, “Don’t Let Them Drag You Down: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert by Philip Brophy”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 48, August 2008, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2008/book-reviews/adventures-priscilla-queen-desert/>, accessed on January 3, 2017.

SMITH Nathan, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: Why It Still Survives”, Out, Friday 10/10/2014, <https://www.out.com/entertainment/movies/2014/10/10/adventures-priscilla-queen-desert-20th-anniversary>, accessed on January 3, 2017.

SONTAG Susan, “Notes on Camp”, in Fabio Cleto (ed.), Camp: Queer Aesthetics and Performing Subject. A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

STOW Randolph, Tourmaline, London: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, 1983.

TURNER Graeme, National Fictions: Literature, Film and the Construction of Australian Narrative, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986.

WHITE Patrick, Voss, London: Penguin Books, [1957] 1980.

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Notes

1 It is interesting to note that when Elliott approached the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras gay groups for the loan of some of their costumes they refused after having read the script, yet since Priscilla’s popular success, Sydney Mardi Gras participants have been happy to dress up in costumes copying those in the film, in particular the iconic orange frock covered with flip-flops.

2 “It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized – or at least apolitical.” Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” in Fabio Cleto (ed.), Camp: Queer Aesthetics and Performing Subject. A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999, 54.

3 “Screenwriter Reflects – Interview with Writer Stephen MacLean,” Star Struck Extras, Blue Underground, 2005.

4 Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), trans. John Cumming, London, NY: Verso Classics, 160.

5 Liz Ferrier, “Vulnerable Bodies: Creative Disabilities in Contemporary Australian Film,” in Ian Craven (ed.), Australian Cinema in the 1990s, London, Portland, Or.: Frank Cass Publishers, 2001, 61.

6 Ibidem, 59.

7 Graeme Turner, National Fictions: Literature, Film and the Construction of Australian Narrative, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986, 50.

8 Emily Rustin, “Romance and Sensation in the ‘Glitter Cycle’”, in Ian Craven (ed.), op. cit., 133.

9 Liz Ferrier, op. cit., 60.

10 Graeme Turner, op. cit., 50.

11 Nathan Smith, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: Why It Still Survives,” Out, Friday 10/10/2014. <http://www.out.com/entertainment/movies/2014/10/10/adventures-priscilla-queen-desert-20th-anniversary>, accessed on January 3, 2017.

12 Priscilla actually debunks stereotypical representations of the homosexual as an AIDS victim since ‘Trumpet’, Bernadette’s partner, whose burial is attended by a very fancifully dressed crowd at the beginning of the film, is revealed to have died not from AIDS but from a fall caused by fumes inhalation while peroxiding his hair.

13 The lyrics lip-synched by Felicia roughly translate as “Folly! All is folly! This is mad delirium!/A poor woman, alone/ lost in this/ crowded desert/which is known to men as Paris./What can I hope for?/What should I do? Revel/ And die in the whirlpool of earthly pleasures.”

14 Philip Brophy, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Australian Screen Classics, Strawberry Hills: Currency Press, 2008, 54.

15 Ibidem, 54.

16 Abrahams Moles, Le Kitsch : l’art du bonheur, Paris: Denoël-Gonthier, 1971.

17 Christophe Genin, Kitsch dans l’âme, Paris: Vrin, 2010, 74-75.

18 Ibidem, 73.

19 Diana Sandars, “Don’t Let Them Drag You Down: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert by Philip Brophy”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 48, August 2008. <http://sensesofcinema.com/2008/book-reviews/adventures-priscilla-queen-desert/>, accessed on January 3, 2017.

20 It is interesting to compare this representation of passive, defeated Australian masculinity with the one portrayed in To Wong Foo–Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the American film that also came out in 1995 and also portrayed three drag queens’ journey in the desert. In the American comedy, the drag queens beat up an abusive husband and it is the women of a small rural community they teach to stand up for themselves.

21 Scott is only able to hear what his father is telling him when he meets a “real” father figure, who is not Australian but Spanish, and who teaches him to dance the paso doblé like a man (that is to say, in the clichéd vision of the film, with the fierce pride of a bull-fighter) rather than a ballroom cissy.

22 Philip Butters, “Becoming a Man in Australian Film,” in Ian Craven (ed.), op. cit., 91.

23 Diana Sandars, “Don’t Let Them Drag You Down,” op. cit.

24 Roslynn D. Haynes, Seeking the Centre: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film, Cambridge, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 4-5.

25 Incidentally, it is interesting to remember that although it has been said that Terence Stamp was cast against type in the role of Bernadette, some critics arguing he was too macho to play a transsexual, at the beginning of his career he famously played sexual ambiguity in Pasolini’s Theorem. In the scenes where Bernadette comforts a distraught Adam or tries to seduce Bob, Stamp seems to be revisiting his earlier role as the mysterious “visitor” who seduces every member of an affluent Milanese family. Casting Stamp as Bernadette could therefore be an ironic nod to Theorem, in which the desert also features. At the end of the film, which deals with the irruption of the manifestation of the divine in the inauthentic lives of a respectable family, the father wanders off naked in the desert as a form of expiation and spiritual quest.

26 When Tick dresses up in bush shirt and pants and an Akubra hat to impress his son with his manliness, Bernadette makes fun of him for looking like something out of a stereotypical cowboy film: “Come on butch, we’ve got to move on. We can’t brand the cattle all by ourselves”. As for Marion, she reproaches him for dressing like a “Xanadu production”, referring to the kitschy musical Xanadu in which a despairing Los Angeles chalk artist is saved by Clio, one of the Muses, dressed up as a roller skater in legwarmers and speaking with an Australian accent.

27 Stephan Elliott in the DVD extras.

28 Philip Brophy, op. cit., 39.

29 Christopher Isherwood, The World in the Evening (1956) quoted in David Bergman (ed.), Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993, 4.

30 Of course, he could also be referring to the 1979 ABBA song that bears the same name, and the lyrics of which assert a belief in angels and a hope for a better world. The references to high and low culture would not be mutually exclusive anyway since such juxtapositions are a characteristic feature of camp, which ensures that meaning is never stable.

31 See, for instance, White’s Voss, Malouf’s Remembering Babylon and Stow’s Tourmaline.

32 Patrick White in a letter to his editor Ben Huebsch in 1956. David Marr, Patrick White: A Life, London: Jonathan Cape, 1991, 313.

33 Patrick White, Voss (1957), London: Penguin Books, 1980, 446.

34 Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992, 16, 303.

35 Kelly Farrell, “(Foot)Ball Gowns: Masculinities, Sexualities and the Politics of Performance”, Journal of Australian Studies, no. 63, 1999.

36 Ibid., 158, 161.

37 Martin Crotty, Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity 1870-1920, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001, 233.

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References

Electronic reference

Anne Le Guellec-Minel, « Camping it out in the Never Never: Subverting Hegemonic Masculinity in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [Online], vol. XV-n°1 | 2017, Online since 05 September 2017, connection on 17 November 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/9086 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.9086

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About the author

Anne Le Guellec-Minel

Anne Le Guellec-Minel est Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Bretagne Occidentale spécialisée en littérature australienne et en études postcoloniales. Après une thèse sur l’épopée dans les romans des années 50 de Patrick White, elle a publié de nombreux articles sur l’imaginaire national dans la littérature australienne (Patrick White, David Malouf, Richard Flanagan, David Forster …). Ses travaux de recherche portent également sur la littérature aborigène et l’hybridité générique entre le roman historique et les traditions orales dans les romans de Kim Scott, Alexis Wright ou Bruce Pascoe.

By this author

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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